This week: Japan's Georges Simenon, plus a look at rivalries in the art world.

All at Sea: A Memoir

Decca Aitkenhead. Doubleday/Talese, $25 (240) ISBN 978-0-385-54065-0

While on a relaxing family beach vacation in Jamaica, Guardian journalist Aitkenhead watched helplessly as her husband, Tony, drowns after rescuing their four-year-old son. Her remarkable memoir recounts the emotional toll his death takes on her and her two sons. The narrative explores how the foggy lens of truth, through which she, as a journalist, previously viewed tragedy, can shatter when tragedy hits home. Aitkenhead and Tony made for an unlikely pair. She covered the political beat for the Guardian while he dealt drugs and smoked crack, with violence part of his life. Yet the couple fell in love and had two sons together, and Tony became a model husband and father. Aitkenhead probes her own psyche to explore the numerous incongruities in her life that surface during her relationship with Tony. She looks at the serious depression that arose in her family when her mother died. Aitkenhead’s tightly written memoir looks beyond commonly held truths, taking readers deep into the morass of human emotion and leaving them gasping for air.


Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger. Amulet, $14.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4197-2122-9

The newest student at Vanguard Middle School is Fuzzy, a robot developed as part of a government project exploring advanced artificial intelligence. In order to aid with Fuzzy’s integration into the school, which is already under the control of the ultra-strict supercomputer known as Vice Principal Barbara, Maxine “Max” Zelaster is selected to act as his guide and friend. However, Max and Fuzzy face the anti-robot prejudices of those tired of losing their jobs to automation, as well as Barbara’s increasingly tyrannical micromanagement. Complicating matters, the military keeps pushing up Fuzzy’s development timeline, and someone is out to steal his unique code. Angleberger (the Origami Yoda series) and adult SF/fantasy author Dellinger draw a lot of comedy out of Fuzzy’s challenging acclimation to middle school, and seem to have put substantial thought into the complexity of the software that makes him work (Fuzzy shorts out in the cafeteria after trying to listen to 250 kids talking at once). It’s a fast-paced, entertaining romp that also offers a nuanced examination of intelligence, free will, and omnipresent technology.

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

Jace Clayton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-53342-7

In this exhilarating book, Clayton, aka DJ Rupture, guides readers on an international tour of various forms of music and music-making technologies within many cultures. Clayton travels to Morocco, for example, to find musicians using Auto-Tune, a technology that alters the pitch of recorded music or vocals; he discovers that the one element uniting the disparate uses of Auto-Tune is the voice itself, which “sings out at the heart of the contest between what we’ve inherited and what we may yet become.” Clayton explores the ways that music travels these days and its international accessibility, observing that it’s sometimes easier to buy Jamaican music in Japan than in Jamaica. He examines how corporate sponsorship compromises music, praising the band Fugazi for its resistance to such compromises and pointing to the band’s success with a do-it-yourself approach to recording, distribution, and promotion. Clayton urges readers to embrace the power of music, recognizing its energetic and enduring capacity to capture and express shared emotions and to become a “memory palace with room for everybody inside.”

The Golden Age

Joan London. Europa (PRH, dist.), $17 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-60945-332-9

Seen one way, Frank Gold is unfortunate: he and his parents are from Hungary but are now “New Australians,” victims of World War II—refugees, displaced people, survivors—that Australia prides itself on having taken in. Nearly 13, he is a polio victim relearning how to walk; he’s seen a friend die in an iron lung. But Frank sees himself as a poet, one of the lucky few with a vocation, and as a lover. Having seen Elsa Briggs, another patient at the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home, he knows that everything that has happened has lead him to her. London (The Good Parents) doesn’t limit herself to Frank and Elsa: although short, the book feels ample, telling not just Frank’s story but those of his parents, anxious pianist Ida and handsome Meyer, trying to adjust to Australia and cope with their wartime experiences; Elsa and her worried mother; and Sister Olive Penny, the Golden Age’s generous and efficient head nurse. They all get time to shine in this limpid book about health and death, love and poetry, sex and hope, war and its aftermath. Like Sister Penny, London sees past people’s exteriors to their complex and desirous interiors, and she generously offers those people to us in all their fullness. The novel was a recipient of multiple awards in London’s native Australia, and deservedly so: it is pretty much perfect.

A Quiet Place

Seicho Matsumoto, trans. from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai. Bitter Lemon, $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-908524-63-8

Why would a woman with a serious heart condition risk her health by climbing a steep hill in an area where she knew no one? That conundrum obsesses Japanese bureaucrat Tsuneo Asai, the hero of this stellar psychological thriller from Matsumoto (Inspector Imanishi Investigates). Asai, a section chief in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is on a business trip with his boss when word reaches him that his wife, Eiko, who had a heart condition, has died suddenly in Tokyo. Despite the emotional distance in their relationship, the tragedy is a shock to Asai, though not enough to make him put aside his professional obligations before he arranges travel home. Asai questions the official version of her death—that she suffered a heart attack in the street, and collapsed inside a nearby cosmetics store—and figures out that her fatal collapse was triggered by Eiko overexerting herself elsewhere. His pursuit of the truth becomes all-consuming, building to a surprising and immensely satisfying resolution that flows naturally from the book’s complex characterizations. Readers will agree that Matsumoto (1909–1992) deserves his reputation as Japan’s Georges Simenon.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here

Angela Palm. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-55597-746-7

Combining lyrical prose with a haunting narrative, Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize–winner Palm recounts a story filled with secret longings, family history, and musings on what might have been. Raised in rural Indiana alongside the flood-prone Kankakee River, Palm dreamed of escaping to a wider world populated with more opportunities. Palm eventually does depart for college and later makes a home in Vermont. But the pull back to the Midwest is strong, and nagging questions persist. As a youngster, the author was secretly in love with her next-door neighbor. But their routes diverged with Palm making a new life for herself, first in Indianapolis and later in Vermont, while her neighbor ends up serving a life sentence for murder. Palm probes deeply into the family and small-town stories, which instilled such a deep sense of place in the author. She becomes fascinated with theories of criminal justice—taking college classes on the subject, reading local police blotters, and watching crime shows on television to better understand the how and why of what happened to her friend. All in all, this is a memoir to linger over, savor and study.

Damaged: A Rosato & DiNunzio Novel

Lisa Scottoline. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-09962-4

In bestseller Scottoline’s outstanding 15th Rosato & DiNunzio novel (after 2015’s Corrupted), Mary DiNunzio, a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & DiNunzio, takes on a heartbreaking case involving a dyslexic fifth grader, Patrick O’Brien, who’s bullied at school and is getting no support for his language disability. Patrick, who’s being raised by his paternal grandfather, allegedly attacked a school aid with scissors, and now the aid is suing both Patrick and the school board for damages. On the brink of her wedding to college professor Anthony Rotunno, Mary becomes emotionally attached to Patrick, more so than any previous client, and finds herself pitted against a diabolical attorney, Nick Machiavelli (aka the Dark Prince), who’s determined to win a settlement, despite the emotional cost to the 10-year-old boy. In her struggle to save Patrick, Mary finds herself fighting her associates, her fiancé, and social services. Tensions mount until the story concludes with a satisfying, unexpected twist.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

Sebastian Smee. Random House, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9480-3

In this beautifully written book, Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Smee (Lucian Freud) explores the dramatic relationships between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Concerned with “yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence” more than pure rivalry, Smee provides a concise biography of each pair, highlighting the similarities and differences between their lives, philosophies, and personalities. This illuminating text draws connections between the pairs (the personal tension between Degas and Manet is, for example, similar to that between Freud and Bacon) and cleverly links events in the artist’s lives, such as two parallel tragedies within Matisse and Picasso’s close families, and Freud’s and Bacon’s separate—though similarly intense and devastating—love affairs. This ambitious and impressive work is an utterly absorbing read about four important relationships in modern art.

Zoe in Wonderland

Brenda Woods. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-399-17097-3

Eleven-year-old Zoe Reindeer, a “shy, perfectly plain girl-person” stuck between a popular older sister and a genius younger brother, may be “just Zoe” in real life, but she’s powerful and strong in her frequent daydreams. Zoe wishes she could be more like “Imaginary Zoe” at home and at school, but there are some good things in her real life, too, like her father’s exotic plant store, Doc Reindeer’s Exotic Plant Wonderland, and spending time with her best friend and fellow nerd Quincy. When a tall, mysterious astronomer who hails from Madagascar comes into “the Wonderland” seeking a baobab tree, then returns to give Zoe a book by Carl Sagan, he starts her on a journey toward discovering that she might be more like Imaginary Zoe than she realized. Woods (The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond) handles big challenges—such as Quincy’s move out of town, middle-school hierarchies, and an elderly neighbor with memory loss—with sensitivity and a light touch. Readers will find it easy to sink into Zoe’s warm family life, realistic in its squabbles, worries, and powerfully evident love.